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The Fate of the Tearling (The Queen of the Tearling #3)
Author:Erika Johansen

Sometimes Aisa thought he might. It had already become a joke among the Guard: the way the Mace would climb the dais with his purposeful stride . . . and then seat himself on the top step, hulking arms resting on his knees. If it had been a long day, he might condescend to use the battered armchair nearby, but the throne itself remained vacant, an empty monolith of gleaming silver at the apex of the room, reminding them all of the Queen’s absence. Aisa was sure that this was exactly what the Mace intended.

Today, the Mace had ignored the dais altogether, electing instead to sit at the head of the Queen’s dining table. Aisa stood just behind his chair. Several people were standing; even the enormous table would not hold them all. Aisa judged little threat of violence here, but she had a hand on her knife, all the same. She rarely let go of it, even when she slept. On the first night after the bridge—Aisa’s mental life now seemed to be divided into Before and After the Bridge—the Mace had given her her own room, right on the periphery of the Guard quarters. Though Aisa was fond of her siblings, she was relieved to be free of them. That part of her life, the old part, the family part, seemed to cleave away when she worked with the Guard. There was no space for it. Aisa felt safe in her new room, safer than she had ever felt, but sometimes she would still wake in the mornings and find her knife in her hand.

Arliss sat beside the Mace, one of his foul cigarettes jutting from his teeth, shuffling the stack of papers in front of him. Arliss lived by facts and figures, but Aisa didn’t know what good his records would do him here. The problem of the Queen could not be solved on paper.

Next to Arliss was General Hall, accompanied by his aide, Colonel Blaser. Both men were still dressed in full armor, for they had just come in from the front. For the past week, the last remnants of the Tear army had trailed the vast Mort war train as it crossed the Caddell and began a slow but steady progress eastward, across the Almont. As impossible as it seemed, the Mort were withdrawing, packing up their siege equipment and heading home.

But why?

No one knew. The Tear army had been decimated, and New London’s defenses were paper-thin; Elston said that the Mort could have torn right through them. The army was keeping a close eye on the invaders, in case of a trick, but by now even the Mace seemed convinced that the withdrawal was real. The Mort were leaving. There was no sense in it, but it was happening, all the same. General Hall said that the Mort soldiers weren’t even looting on their way home.

All of this was good news, but the mood at this table was anything but ebullient. There had still been no word on the Queen. Her body had not been left behind when the Mort moved out. Maman said she was a prisoner, and the thought made Aisa’s blood boil. The first duty of a Queen’s Guard was to protect the ruler from harm, and even if the Queen wasn’t dead, she was still at the mercy of the Mort. Even Maman could not say what was happening to her in their camp.

On the other side of the Mace sat Pen, his face pale and drawn. Whatever agonies Aisa and the other guards endured over the Queen’s welfare, no one was suffering like Pen, who had been the Queen’s close guard . . . and more, Aisa thought. He was little use these days, for he seemed able to do nothing but mope and drink, and when someone called his name he would only look up in a slightly confused manner. Some part of Pen had been lost on the day the Queen broke the bridge, and although he sat next to the Mace, in the place of a close guard, his gaze remained fixed on the table, lost. Coryn, who sat beside him, was his usual alert self, so Aisa didn’t worry, but she wondered how much more slack Elston was going to extend to Pen. What would it take for someone to voice the truth: that Pen was no longer fit for the job?

“Let’s begin,” the Mace announced. “What news?”

General Hall cleared his throat. “I should give my report first, sir. There’s good reason.”

“Let’s have it, then. Where are the Mort?”

“They’re in the central Almont now, sir, nearing the end of the Crithe. They make at least five miles a day, closer to ten since the rain stopped.”

“Nothing left behind?”

Hall shook his head. “We have looked for traps. I believe the withdrawal is genuine.”

“Well, that’s something, at least.”

“Yes, but sir—”

“What about the displaced?” Arliss demanded. “Can we start sending them home?”

“I’m not sure it’s safe, certainly not right on the heels of the Mort war train.”

“Snow has already fallen in the northern Reddick, General. If we don’t harvest the crops soon, there’ll be nothing to reap.” Arliss paused to emit a plume of smoke. “We also have every problem an overcrowded city ever faced: sewage, water treatment, disease. The sooner we empty it out, the better. Maybe if you—”

“We’ve sighted the Queen.”

The entire table came to attention. Even Pen seemed to wake up.

“What are you waiting for?” the Mace barked. “Report!”

“We spotted her yesterday morning, out in the Crithe delta. She’s alive, but manacled, chained to a wagon. There’s no opportunity for her to run.”